Monday, 29 April 2013

What I want: Harley-Davidson Iron 883


Let's be honest: you would, wouldn't you? No, stop lying. You totally would. Yes, yes you would. Look, it's just you and I in this conversation and no one else will ever know. So you can be honest. Deep down inside, you totally would. If the opportunity presented itself, you would ride a Harley and you would love it.

It's quite popular to engage in Harley hate (especially in the UK, where that hate generally extends to all cruisers), and I'll admit that I've been guilty of following the herd once or twice over the years. There's no doubt that H-D sells an image as much as it does a product and there is something ingratiating about the sort of person who is clearly putting all his/her money into the former over the latter.

We want to believe that we are better than that person. But, in truth, that superficial element exists in almost any non-essential purchase we make. The same is true of cars and bicycles and clothing and on and on; somewhere at the heart of almost everything a man does is the desire to look sexy or threatening. The Harley-Davidson Iron 883 is a little bit of both.

The complaints against Harley-Davidsons are myriad and more often than not deeply emotional. Not possessing a great deal of mechanical knowledge myself I can't truly speak to the veracity of such claims, but it seems the most legitimate criticism is that a Harley needs more mechanical attention than other bikes of equal size and type. This is what other people tell me. Steve Johnson, a former Harley owner, has confirmed this on his blog –– his H-D was comfortable and cool to be seen on, but required more love than the Honda with which he is now touring the United States.

That little truth probably won't stop me from ever owning own a Harley. Hell, perhaps that's part of the appeal. Many moons ago, when Jaguars were still British cars, my dad used to dream of owning one. I pointed out to him that they were notoriously finicky things, prone to frequent visits to the mechanic. 

"That's kind of the point," he said. "I'd not just like to be able to drive a Jaguar, but be able to afford to keep a Jaguar."

But, no, I think the appeal of a Harley is greater than that. If I were to be given an Iron 883 I would cherish it. They just look cool. They sound cool. I would feel cool riding one around. Harley-Davidson does sell an image, an intangible that can be frustrating to people who like to see themselves as above such a thing. But the image is what you make of it, and primarily just a thing of self-confidence.

And you can't help but respect the fact that Harley-Davidson has gone to great lengths recently to widen its appeal. With its Stereotypical Harley campaign, H-D has become the best-selling motorcycle among women, blacks and Hispanics. That can only be a good thing for motorcycles in general. The only other company that seems to be really trying to broaden its (and motorcycling's) appeal is Honda.

In fairness, Honda has done this by offering new products (e.g., bikes with automatic transmissions) rather than a new package. But, hey, when you have a product as iconic as a Harley, perhaps there's no need to change.

Friday, 26 April 2013

What I want: Honda NC700X

Pictured is the DCT model. (Note the missing clutch lever)
I think I'd prefer the manual version.
It's nowhere near as sexy as a Bonneville or Speedmaster. That's true. It's unlikely to be the sort of machine that would result in having to fight off the ladies. But still, it has something. A kind of geek cool, perhaps? The sexiness of efficiency and reliability.

Whatever the case, the NC700X still manages to tick that all-important box of putting a big grin on my face. It is a bike that's been on my wish list from pretty much the beginning of this whole obsessive episode –– in part because I've never seen it given a bad review. Sure, it occasionally gets labeled as slightly dull, but the articles all seem to agree that it is efficient and effective. The NC700X is capable of doing just about everything pretty well.

It gets upward of 60 mpg (1), it can actually hold its own against proper adventure bikes, it has more storage than any other motorcycle I know, and it has the respectability and presumed reliability that comes from being a Honda. This is the sort of thing that is infinitely appealing to a new rider: a reliable, predictable bike that can do a little bit of everything. A perfect fit because a new rider doesn't yet really know what he or she wants to do.

I mentioned in my previous post that I got a chance to see the NC700X in the flesh recently. It looked a little bit cooler in real life than in pictures, has a comfortable seat and a more natural riding position than on the CBF600 to which I've grown accustomed. But the thing that really struck me was how light it was.

Or, rather, how light it felt. The machine weighs in at roughly 218kg (480lbs), which is some 20kg (44lbs) heavier than the CBF600. But it feels so much different. The weight is low in the frame, so when you sit on the thing you can shift the bike from thigh to thigh as easily as you would a 125. It is amazing!

There are a handful of low-mileage used NC700X bikes out there, so if/when I finally come across the money (2) it's a good bet this will be my first bike. True, it does not quite match the image of motorcycling that I seem to love (check my Tumblr and I'm usually posting videos of bearded dudes riding greasy old bikes or hipster Harleys). Rather than blue jeans and a leather jacket I might look more the part wearing a Roadcrafter. But I'm pretty sure I'd still feel cool. Maybe I'd keep a few Kriega bags strapped to the thing at all times to communicate to the world: "Hey! I'm on an adventure!"

Because, in a way, I always would be.

–––––

(1) CycleWorld managed 73 mpg on their non-DCT version.

(2) And actually pass my Mod 2 exam.

Monday, 22 April 2013

The long road

When I say that I was ready to give up, perhaps it would be more accurate to say I wanted to be ready to give up. I wanted to be able to. I wanted to be able to say to myself: "You know what? Forget this. Do something else; clearly this is not making you happy and you are not suited to it. Move on."

But even as I lay in bed through most of the next day I found myself still reading Hell for Leather articles online, watching just about any motorcycle video or short film I could find and posting my favourites to Tumblr (along with all the other webby stuff that amuses me), and playing that stupid daydream game of trying to determine exactly which bike I want to get.

It's those videos, especially, that really get me. That Ride Apart episode in which Jamie goes to Sequoia National Forest on a Bonneville has become a kind of life ambition –– a vision of how I want to live my life. So much so that almost any motorcycling daydream now involves my strapping Kriega gear to the back of the thing.

"I'll get a [name of bike goes here], a few Kriega bags and head up to the Cairngorms," I'll tell myself.

Thereafter I'll fall into a kind of melancholy at the thought of all the obstacles between myself and that ideal. First and foremost, of course, is the motorcycle license.

One of the myriad challenges I have to overcome in getting the license is that I have so little experience on a motorcycle. Apart from the handful of hours I rode when I was 18 years old, the whole of my riding experience amounts to just six days, spread out over the space of 2.5 months. 

Account for the fact that these riding days are always finished by 4 p.m., and generally include lunch, multiple tea breaks and no less than an hour of waiting around for various things to occur, and it's likely my total lifetime on-bike hours hover somewhere around 24-30.

Hindsight being all that it is, and knowing now how much money I've lost in unsuccessful exam attempts, it might have been a wiser move for me to just buy a 125cc bike and ride around with L plates for a year or so. But the past is just that: the past. And one cannot know it until it has occurred. So I am left to only move forward and hope that all this money (money that by now could have paid for a plane ticket home) will turn out to have been better spent than it presently feels.

Jenn suggested that I just take the hit financially and spend an extra day training. A day of riding around without the pressure of a test. And that's what I did last Thursday.

It went well. The wind was ridiculous (I'm guessing this video was recorded on the same day), but I handled it and felt cheekily proud to already have experience in some of the worst of British weather. When I failed my Mod 2 the first time it was so cold we encountered snow; when I failed it the second time we encountered a torrential downpour on the ride home; now I've also suffered high winds.

I think my instructor, Andy, feels a kind of sympathy for me. At one point in the day, for no reason in particular, we stopped at Thunder Road and he went straight for a Honda NC700X, a bike I've expressed interest in several times before. I think now that he was subtly trying to remind me of the point, trying to place a goal before me to help me see beyond the immediate hurdle of the exam. And I suppose it worked. I am eager to try again.

Well, I'm not sure 'eager' is the right word. Willing. Obliged. I don't feel I can give up, as much as I may wish I could.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Even worse than the first time

Until today I couldn't bring myself to write about failing the Mod 2 for the second time. And it still cuts me up to do so.

The Mod 2, of course, is the on-road test –– the fifth and final stage in the exhausting and farcically red-tape process of getting a motorcycle license in the United Kingdom. My first attempt at taking the test went horribly wrong and kicked me into an acute depressive episode that lasted almost the whole of the 10 days that one is required to wait before being allowed to take the test again.

Admittedly, said depressive episode was exacerbated by my not getting a job for which I had interviewed, and having my book rejected. These past few weeks have been hard, y'all. But last week the weather finally started to turn a bit. Still raining constantly, but not the bitter cold that had frozen my fingers and brain in early April.

The test was in Newport, which is a city I know a little better, and which has more recently benefitted from infrastructure spending. The Ryder Cup came to Newport a few years ago and the city went to the trouble to paint lines on its roads. It's still littered with completely illogical turns and junctions, but so, too, is every single village, town and city in the rest of Britain.

The straightest, most direct roads in this country are still those laid out by Romans almost 2,000 years ago. Everything else was almost certainly the result of some fella's drunken stumble home from the pub and no one has ever sobered up enough to straighten things out.

It baffles and frustrates me that motorcycle tests are not available in Cardiff: Wales' capital city. I know Cardiff and would not have to add a feeling of disorientation to the long list of pressures that are part of the Mod 2. But, of those cities and towns where the test is available, I suppose Newport would be top of my list. Both myself and my former partner have worked there.

The examiner, too, left me feeling more comfortable this time. He was agreeable in explaining the test to me and, most importantly, he had a radio that worked. We set out and the sun was shining. And the test went really well...

Until I came to a junction where I was supposed to turn left and the light suddenly went yellow. Instantly I assessed the situation: I took into account that the stop line was at least 30 feet away from the actual junction, and that I knew I was going to take the turn gingerly because it was at slightly sharper than a 90-degree angle, and that right behind me there was a dude I figured would almost certainly fail me if I got caught in the junction when the light turned red. I pulled hard on the brakes. I didn't skid, it wasn't an emergency stop, but it was a quick one and I ended up with my front wheel about 8 inches past the white line.

That's where I failed. And in my gut I knew it. I dropped my head a little, but quickly straightened up because the thing is: you haven't failed a test until they tell you that you've failed the test. In my Mod 1 exam I had oh-so-slightly dabbed my right foot on the ground during a stop and the examiner didn't even mention it. Perhaps, I thought, I would be able to ride through this error.

We rode on for another 20 minutes or so and I did really well. I was ticking all the stupid little boxes. And with each minute the test carried on I started to feel that, yes, I had pulled it off. After all, if the examiner really was going to fail me, why have me keep riding around?

"Well, first thing," he said, once we were back in his office and he was helping me to get the radio off. "Is that, unfortunately, you did not pass."

And I started to spiral from that point. I don't really feel like going into it. There was me staring at the ground, feeling sick. Then wandering outside and driving my fists into my head in rage and frustration.

This stupid fucking thing. This stupid fucking little goal that was supposed to help me lift myself up from all the other fucking failures of my life and I was incapable of pulling it off. This stupid fucking country; what was I even doing here? I have a fucking motorcycle license in the United States, where they've somehow overcome the great engineering feat that is building a fucking road that fucking makes sense. And they also have something else in my home country: fucking sunshine. Why in the Great Fuck was I bleeding money to jump through the biggest bullshit hoops ever devised so I can scrabble through the fucking wet and cold of this fucking mouldy rock of a country?

And on and on and on like that for the next several days. I felt so defeated, so upset. And ready to give up.

Uhm, your guess is as good as mine.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

What I dream of doing

I love the MotoGeo Adventure series, hosted by Jamie Robinson. The stuff he does serves as inspiration for the daydreams I have about riding my own bike. The process of trying to get a motorcycle and the financial realities of my life often leave me feeling really discouraged and inclined to just let the whole thing slip away again, as it did when I was a teenager. But then I'll watch a video piece like this and it lights something in me.

It tortures me, as well. At the end of his pieces, Jamie always speaks to the simplistic joy of motorcycling. "Just get on a motorbike, twist the throttle, and go. Anywhere," he'll say. But that is so hard for me, seems so far away. Sometimes I think I am torturing myself by watching these sorts of things. 

Friday, 12 April 2013

What I want: Triumph Speedmaster

Me likey.
I started saving money for a motorcycle at the start of the year; thus far I've managed to set aside £303. At this rate, I will be able to afford a brand new Triumph Speedmaster in about eight years. But hey, a fella can dream (1).

The Speedmaster didn't used to be on my wish list of bikes. A few months ago, before I ever threw a leg over a bike, I would stare wantonly at the pictures of machines on Triumph's website. The America caught most of my attention early on, but somehow the Speedmaster got overlooked. Perhaps because I couldn't quite tell the two bikes apart. Triumph's website has a feature that allows you to do side-by-side comparisons of its bikes. Put the America and the Speedmaster next to each other and they are almost exactly the same motorcycle: same engine, same seat height, same weight, same frame, same base price, and so on.

What differences exist are extremely subtle and purely cosmetic. The America seems to have a bit more chrome and a bigger front mudguard. The Speedmaster is 0.3 inches shorter (though this doesn't affect seat height) and comes with a tachometer. I suppose I made the America the object of my affection solely for the name. America!

But a few weeks ago I happened to be in Bristol for a job interview. The weather was unusually sunny and I was feeling optimistic. I dig Bristol and hope to move there within the next year or so. This job seemed the perfect fit for me: something I wanted to do in the place I wanted to be. In the immediate term, though, I knew it would require a daily commute from Cardiff to Bristol. Which, of course, was not something I saw as a drawback.

The job would have added roughly £12,000 a year to my earnings, plenty to buy a bike upon which I could happily commute to Bristol each day –– filtering through traffic and gleefully taking advantage of the fact that motorcycles are exempt from the Severn Bridge toll. This was a thought that buzzed in my head as I prepared for the interview, a happy wonderful background melody that highlighted the days beforehand and the day itself.

I would describe my gait as nothing less than jaunty as I walked along Portwall Lane on the day of my interview. Suddenly I saw, gleaming in the sun, the most beautiful red... thing... I had ever seen.

"What is that?" I asked myself aloud.

I have notoriously bad spatial relations, so I have been known to struggle to connect a thing's actual form with pictures of said thing. Though I had almost certainly seen pictures of a Speedmaster and had salivated over its almost identical twin, the America, the bike in the flesh looked utterly foreign. As I got closer and closer I tried to convince myself it was a Harley 883, despite knowing from the engine that it was not.

Finally I was able to read the writing on the bike. A Speedmaster. Great googly moogly what a beautiful bike. I mean, oh, wow. It looks cool, it looks manageable. I would look the bee's muthhuggin knees on that thing. It's got that big, comfy seat –– you could sit on that all day long. This, I decided, was a sign. This was the Baby Jesus blinding Saul on the way to Damascus. This beautiful, red piece of British-made sex had been placed on my route to a job interview to inspire me, to let me know what awaited me. I knew –– knew, did not think, did not feel, did not hope, but knew –– that purchase of a Speedmaster would be my first act upon being accepted for the job.

And I'll tell you, amigos, I knocked that interview out of the park. In the presentation I was required to give I needed no notes, I moved effortlessly along and made jokes with my interviewers. At one point an interviewer was following my chain of thought like the newly converted: "Yeah," he shouted. "Yeah, that's exactly what we're hoping to build here! That is brilliant."

After the interview I walked again down Portwall Lane and the Speedmaster was still there, shining in the early spring sun.

"You did well," she seemed to say. "I'll see you soon."

Two days later, a letter arrived in the post. It thanked me for attending the interview and informed that, unfortunately, I had been unsuccessful.

The call of the Speedmaster, though, still lingers. I go back and forth on all the bikes I'd like, with the Bonneville often winning the day. But the Speedmaster keeps singing to me. Maybe one day I'll be able to answer her.

–––––

(1) And I'm unlikely to buy a brand new bike, anyway. 

Monday, 8 April 2013

Missing the point

I can't remember how this came about, but the other day I found myself looking up reviews for the WK 650 TR, a 650cc Chinese-made tourer that goes under any number of names, including CF Moto. It's a nice enough looking bike, somewhat mimicking the look of a Kawasaki GTR, but probably better compared with a Honda Deauville.

And indeed, the latter comparison comes up quite often if you make the mistake of wading through internet comments about the 650 TR. Comments on Chinese bikes are almost always useless. It is generally all-caps xenophobia countered by the occasional hopeful observation that people used to say the same things about Japanese products. Whether the bikes are any good is a question that is never really answered. And by "good" what I mean is "good enough."

A brand new 650 TR will set you back £5,200 and see you covered by a two-year warranty. Over and over in internet comments you will see the sage advice that it is better to just spend that money on a secondhand Honda Deauville. For some reason, this suggestion annoys the hell out of me. I get so frustrated by the "get a second-hand something else for the same price" argument because I feel that the people saying this are missing the point.

Let's take a look at this handy table I've made:


Number of times bike has been dropped
Number of times bike has been ridden too hard
Number of times bike has been neglected in terms of service
Honda Deauville
???
???
???
WK 650 TR
0
0
0


It goes on and on and on. With a secondhand bike, you are confronted by any number of unknowns. A new bike gives you, at least, the knowledge that certain bad things haven't happened yet. I've had a look at BikeTrader and there are presently 26 Honda Deauvilles available in the United Kingdom for £5,200 or less. Doing a quick bit of math, these Deauvilles are on average nine years old (1) and have 25,000 miles on the clock.

So, the actual comparison is between a brand new motorcycle and one that has seen a lot of years and a lot of road. The first bike comes with a two-year warranty, the second bike comes only with the not-particularly-comforting knowledge that if it were new it would have been a better bike. And this is where comes my question of whether a Chinese bike is any good. Is the WK 650 TR good enough that it will be as reliable and have the same longevity as a well-used Honda Deauville? Assuming one plans to hold onto the bike for six years (1), which machine will be producing the least amount of headaches in 2019?

On a side note, I don't really want one of these bikes. I'd take one if offered, but if I had £5,000 on hand it would almost certainly go toward a Triumph of some sort. But that's personal preference; the bikes I want are apples to this particular orange. My issue is with the culture that dismisses Chinese bikes and won't fairly assess their worth. Are these bikes good enough? I've not seen any articles that really answer that question.

–––––

(1) Which means the bike would not meet Euro 3 emissions standards. Older vehicles are exempt from having to comply to these standards but the rider still has to live with the knowledge that he or she is polluting more.

(2) The average amount of time a Briton holds onto a touring machine, according to this story.

Friday, 5 April 2013

I wish I had been more aware

I got my Minnesota motorcycle endorsement in the summer of 1994. I was 18 years old and had failed to graduate high school with the rest of my friends, which meant I was feeling pretty low. The state of Minnesota is full of smart people; I read a statistic recently that 91 percent of the state's population has a high school degree. And every single one of my good friends had graduated in the top 25 of our class.

I always like to tell the story that, according to my final report card, I was ranked 416 –– despite the fact there were only 414 people in my class. And there was a kid in my class who thought he was Batman. No, really. He dressed up as Batman and referred to everyone as "citizen" (1). He graduated on time; I didn't.

So, my getting a motorcycle endorsement was primarily an act of proving to myself that I could do something: an easy, confidence-boosting win. To a certain extent, the motorcycle endorsement was an end rather than a means. I am not able now to get back into the mind of my 18-year-old self, so I can't really say how strong was my desire to do anything with the endorsement after earning it.

I know that I was a kid with a poor work ethic (and therefore very little money) who had no close friends with motorcycles or even any sort of mechanical inclination. No one in my circle worked on cars, they were too busy pretending to be arts-minded liberals (2). I know, too, that I was generally put off by the look and sound of sport motorcycles –– a stance exacerbated by the fact I lived amongst the slow-to-change latent racism of the Upper Midwest. As late as the 90s it was still very common for a dude to roll his eyes and complain about "rice burner crotch rockets."

On top of this, it was a time before the internet. So what I knew about motorcycling was incredibly limited. To the point of naivety so intense I was afraid to confront it. I never set foot in a motorcycle shop because I feared being instantly exposed as a fool. The only "shopping" for motorcycles I did was via classified ads in the Star Tribune. Which was rarely of any use to me because the ads were text only and I had no idea what the letters and numbers of a motorcycle's name meant (3). My best lead came via occasional Sunday pull-out adverts from Tousley Motorsports, where the tendency was to show pictures of "rice burners" at prices far beyond what I was willing or capable of paying for something I didn't really want.

Motorcycling seemed to present only two faces to me: 1) Dude in his 50s who is loping around on an enormous, expensive and shiny Harley hoping it will compensate for the fact he is fat and his penis doesn't work; 2) Dude on an ear-splitting sport bike who wears Oakleys and a backwards baseball cap. I didn't want to be either of those people. And I think that's why, or at least part of why motorcycling fell out of interest for me.

I wish I had been more aware, though. I wish I had been able to see that a bike is just a bike; it can be an extension of your personality if you want, but doesn't have to be the source of it. I wonder what my adventures would have been like.

A little different, I suppose. I used to do a lot of sleeping in my pick up.

–––––

(1) He was beloved. He always took it upon himself to break up fights by stepping into the fray and giving both combatants a good talking to. And it always worked. Both sides were so amused they couldn't help but walk away.

(2) Because I am such a contrary person at times, I annoyed my friends by listening to Rush Limbaugh all the time and daydreaming of owning an extravagantly large ranch in Texas. In my parents' storage area I still have the drawings of the house I wanted to build –– a large ranch home with a sort of grand hall in the middle that has huge doors on each side that can be opened to catch the wind and move it through the house.

(3) I still find that to be an annoying aspect of motorcycling. What's wrong with a name, for the love of Pete?! Call it a Bonneville or a Speedmaster or a Vegas 8, not a VT750 or VN900.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Setback

The test was in Swansea; that was the first problem. Dylan Thomas once said Swansea is the place where hope goes to die. More to the point, the film Twin Town labelled it the "pretty shitty city." I have met few people from Swansea whom I have not liked, but I've equally met few people who liked going to Swansea. It is grubby, cramped and notoriously difficult to navigate. Not, then, an ideal place to take one's Module 2 exam.

Add to this the fact Swansea is a one-hour ride away from Cardiff. The day started out with a long, painfully cold trek across the erstwhile kingdom of Glamorgan. It was so cold we encountered snow in Briton Ferry, and at one point my hands froze to the point of losing all feeling. I had to pull to the side of the road to slap and clap and rub them back to life.

Just outside of Swansea we stopped for a late breakfast at one of the most depressing cafes in the British Isles. I was so put off by the lukewarm, greasy, soggy, overcooked, heatlamped breakfast served to me that I could not eat it. I nibbled at the toast, drank a cup of pencil-shavings tea and wished for the day to be over.

So, when I finally arrived the test centre that afternoon I was not in the best condition. I was tired, hungry, and suffering from a cold-weather-induced mental numbness. In the minutes before the test, waiting to be called by the examiner, when most people would have been nervously pacing or chewing their nails, I drifted in and out of broken sleep.

"Is this where you live?" the examiner growled, waving a stack of papers I had handed him upon being called into a small office.

"What?" I asked, still groggy.

"Is this your current address?"

What a ridiculous question. I had just handed him five sheets of paper, earned over a month-long gauntlet of written and practical exams. How would I have made it this far had that simple bit of information been incorrect? His question was so stupid, I decided, it must be a trick.

"I'm afraid I don't understand what you're asking," I said.

"This address here," he said, pointing to my address. "This is where you live, is it? In Penarth?"

"Well, yes," I said. "Of course."

Somewhere in the above exchange the examiner decided he hated me. And a tiny, anti-authoritarian voice in my frostbitten brain decided it wasn't too keen on the examiner. The tone became adversarial. When he asked me to show how I would check the brake lights, when I identified a major problem with the radio, there was a feeling of animosity, an agitation with each other.

The Module 2 exam is the final step in getting one's license in the UK. It is a simple enough thing: the examiner hooks you up to a one-way radio and directs you on a ride through various parts of the city. The purpose is simply to show you are a proficient enough motorcyclist to be on British roads by yourself. You are not necessarily tested on your ability to follow directions (if you go the wrong way it doesn't count against you, as long as you go the wrong way safely), but that becomes a de facto element of the experience. And, of course, being able to hear the examiner's directions is vital to your success.

Before we set out, before we even started the bikes, I had stressed to the examiner that there was a serious problem with the radio he was using. At the end of every transmission it would send an unholy wave of feedback through my skull. Because we had earlier silently agreed to be enemies, however, he refused to listen to my concerns. He just stared at me blankly and stated he would not be able to communicate without the radio.

"It's very painful," I said. "But I'll see if I can put up with it."

On another day, perhaps I could have. On this day, each screeching beep induced an exasperated rage in my already muddled brain. And that caused mistakes. On a right turn I swung out very wide, almost hitting the curb. I stopped listening to any directions and drove along until I found a safe place to pull over. Once I had done so, I sat on the bike for a moment to collect myself. In my mirror I could see the examiner behind me. I cut the engine and stepped off the bike.

"I'm serious about this radio," I said.

"I can't communicate to you without it," he stated again.

"I'm not willing to damage my hearing over this," I said. "Look. I've got £10 in my wallet. You hold this thing to your ear and tell me it doesn't hurt; I'll bet you can't put up with it. If we need to, we can cancel this test now -- call it a radio problem and reschedule. But I'm serious. This radio is not tolerable."

Petulant is the word that comes to mind when I think of his response. But he agreed and we went about the process of making the radio beep over and over in an effort to address the issue. We were able to reduce the feedback but then that meant not being able to hear his instructions. His annoyance with me was palpable. At one point I brought the radio around from my side and attempted to turn it down, unwittingly changing the channel.

"Don't fucking touch it," he shouted, swatting my hand away. "See?! That's why I'm always saying not to mess with it."

His expletive command had been his first and only instruction to me about the radio. I would very much like to go back in time and call him on his lack of professionalism, tell him that because of his response I did not feel I was being given a fair chance and terminate the exam. Instead, I found myself responding as one does when he has suddenly walked into a trap argument with a girlfriend.

"Hey, hey. It's OK," I said. "I'm sorry if I've upset you. I'm not trying to be funny, not trying to mess with you. I just want to be able to hear you, that's all."

We spent upward of 10 minutes working on the radio, eventually settling on a middle ground of barely being able to hear him and suffering feedback that was only annoying, rather than making me want to rip my helmet off. But you know how this story ends, don't you? You know there was no way even the slightest infraction would go unnoticed after all that. You know the only time he didn't speak in disdainful monotone was when we got back to his little office and he told me, "unfortunately, you did not pass," repeating it three times.

"I'll take this. I'll accept this," I said. "Fair enough, I was sloppy on one of those turns. But I'm serious about the radio, OK? Very serious. That was a real problem."

He got up and walked out of the room without speaking. I didn't move. I sat in the room, quiet, tired, angry, humiliated. British life is like this for me sometimes. I am given all these ridiculous hoops to jump through -- employment, immigration, motor vehicle licensing, etc. -- and I feel pushed around. I feel under cut. And it produces in me a simmering, latent anger toward this place I am trying so hard to call home

The ride back to Cardiff felt like punishment. Until I get my full license I am only allowed to ride a big bike when I've got an instructor around, who's able to communicate with me via radio. The earpiece was in, but my usually chatty instructor said nothing. We just rode on through the bitter chill. My teeth chattered. My hands went numb. In my heart I wanted to cry, but I was too cold, too tired, too defeated.